What they don’t tell you is that the whole game is a trap.
All the way back in 2007, Apple’s introduction of the iPhone seemed like it would revolutionize mobile gaming. Though Nokia had tried a hybrid phone/portable game console all the way back in 2003—the questionably-designed and forgettable N-Gage—there was a lot of promise for smaller game developers in a phone that happened to be smart enough to play video games, even if it wasn’t designed specifically for it. Prior to the modern smartphone, gaming away from a TV set meant buying a dedicated device for it, a market dominated by Nintendo. And while Nintendo did a lot of great things with portable gaming, it wasn’t an environment with much room for indie designers. The iPhone and subsequent Android smartphones let game designers sell their games to people who might not be “gamer” enough to own a Game Boy. And then, like so many other things, greed and market stupidity broke it. On the dedicated gaming side of things, a new game for the Nintendo 3DS costs $35-40. That’s fine if you’re the sort of person who would drop $200 for a dedicated portable game console in the first place—and cheap compared to the $60 price tag for new home console games. But what game developers discovered is that smartphone gamers won’t pay that. They don’t want to pay anything. Take, for example, the case of the game Threes!, a puzzle game that costs a mere $2.99 to buy (currently on sale for $1.99!). An easier knockoff version of the game called 2048 is available for free. It’s not hard to guess which is more popular. But you can’t make money off free, right? 100,000 downloads x $0 is still a big fat goose egg. Casual game studios—and this is perpetrated much more frequently by big studios than indie designers—started encouraging microtransactions, letting people purchase a hint or a boost or some other way to advance in the game for just a dollar or two. An ethical game designer can include this sort of thing without breaking the game. An ethical game designer wouldn’t design the game to ultimately require you to purchase these items in order to win the game. Our modern world is suffering from a dearth of ethical game designers. Two of the worst recent examples have been remakes of older games, and the fact that you can play these games in an un-“monetized” form makes it transparent how much the games have been broken for the sake of microtransactions. The classic Peter Molyneux game Dungeon Keeper, where you create a dungeon to thwart invading heroes, was rereleased by EA Games in a virtually unplayable state that required you to purchase the ability to do anything at all without a 24-hour wait. It’s also burdened with ads. A recent iOS release of the classic Japanese RPG Tales of Phantasia had the difficulty jacked up to ridiculous levels that rendered it nearly unbeatable without in-game bonus items purchased with real-world money. Both are respected games turned into offensive cash-grabs. This kind of manipulative, exploitative behavior will continue for as long as the market can support it. So what can you do if you want games designed to be played rather than games designed to play you? First, don’t spend money on microtransactions. Second, support games that you pay for once up front and then never again. Buy Threes! instead of downloading 2048. Game designers increasingly have to make a choice of whether to charge for a game or make it free and hobbled. Help make the right decision profitable for them.